Following a second strong, if understated, debate performance late last month, Marco Rubio is currently riding a wave of positive press. He is “surging in the polls,” has “the hot hand,” and is even emerging as “the favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.”
With the summer of Trump coming to a close, it seems, we are at the cusp of a new stage of the campaign where the non-silly-season favorites begin to assert themselves and the race finally gets serious. And there is good reason why that means Rubio’s stock is on the rise: With Scott Walker out and Jeb Bush giving his own backers serious heartburn, Rubio is the only member of the GOP establishment’s former Big Three who appears to be heading in the right direction. As New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells correctly put it Friday, "it is startling how well the race has gone for Rubio so far." If not Marco, the logic goes, then who?
The thing is: The race hasn’t gone that well for Rubio. Personally, I’m largely on board with this Rubio-will-win-by-default line of thinking. But it’s worth noting given the current hype cycle that, to date, he has yet to translate the buzz into anything tangible. Put simply, there just isn’t a whole lot of concrete evidence to suggest that Marco’s current “momentum” is much more than the product of the wishful thinking of a nervous Republican Party and the predictions of a bored political press corps.
Consider: Late Thursday night, Rubio’s campaign announced that it had raised $6 million during the previous three months—that’s half the amount he brought in during his first three months in the race, back when he was everyone’s second choice and almost no one’s first. His summer haul, meanwhile, looks all the more disappointing when compared with those of his rivals, who are not being treated with anywhere near the same political reverence: Ted Cruz brought in $12 million and Ben Carson raised $20 million during that same period. (So far, the only other Republican to release third-quarter figures is Rand Paul, who reported raising a paltry $2.5 million. Besting a man who is in danger of losing his spot on the main debate stage, though, is hardly something to celebrate.)
Rubio’s team has been careful to keep expectations low all year, but even they felt the need to put a brave face on their lackluster fundraising report, assuring supporters that their man is currently on pace to have his best single fundraising month so far in October. Never mind that, conveniently, that’s the type of hype that can’t be double-checked until the campaign files its next fundraising report in early 2016.
The cash race isn’t the only one that Rubio is underperforming in relative to his current buzz. For a man who is “surging” in the polls, his survey numbers tell a much less exciting story. Yes, he’s inched up a few points here and there following his strong performance on the CNN stage—a bump that can be explained, at least in part, by the glowing reviews he received in the press—but, at best, Rubio’s simply keeping his head above water at the moment.
According to Huffington Post’s polling tracker, for example, Rubio entered July in fourth place with about 9 percent in national polls, within 5 points of then-leader Jeb Bush. Today, he’s in third-place at 10.5 percent, but more than 17 points behind front-runner Donald Trump. RealClearPolitics’ rolling average tells a similar story: Rubio entered July tied for third at 9.4 percent; today he’s in fourth with 9.9 percent.
The picture’s not any prettier in the states that open the GOP nominating contest early next year. By RCP’s count, Rubio is currently at 7.7 percent in Iowa, down a fraction of a point from where he was in early July, and down more than 4 points from his high-water mark in May. In New Hampshire, he’s at 7 percent, down more than a point from the beginning of July and down more than 4 from his best showing the month before. And in South Carolina, Rubio’s at 5 percent, down more than a point from where he began the summer.
For an establishment favorite, meanwhile, Rubio doesn’t yet appear to be the favorite of much of the establishment. He picked up the backing of two congressmen in the past two weeks, but those endorsements bring his total to only five. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker—which weighs endorsements by the relative importance of the endorser’s office—Rubio currently sits in eighth place in the GOP field, behind Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham.
Rubio’s current “surge,” then, is much less about him moving forward than it is his fellow conventional candidates falling backward. Given the current anti-status-quo status quo, that’s enough to allow Rubio to have his moment out front in the establishment lane that most observers still expect to produce the eventual Republican nominee. The big question, though, is whether Rubio will actually be able to capitalize on it before the spotlight moves on.